Friday, May 1, 2009

The terror of surgical masks

Yesterday I rode up six floors in an elevator with a small brown boy who was wearing wearing a surgical mask. Whether he was Latino or Indian or something else wasn't apparent, but I stood in the corner as far away as I could get. Would I have done the same if he were a white boy? I'm ashamed to say I don't know. Ingrained childhood racism is hard to shake entirely -- let alone fear of pandemics.

Last night I dreamed swine flu had overtaken the Chicago area and everyone wore surgical masks. This had me tossing and sweating, for I am a deaf person who reads lips -- who has to read lips in order to communicate. Suddenly I was unable to understand anyone. I could not deal with the waiter trying to take my order, with the salesclerk holding my credit card and shaking her head, with the police officer at the door of my car with his hand on his holster. Their masks prevented understanding. I was completely cut off from communication. I woke up in something very like a panic attack.

A friend of mine who is also deaf and a lipreader holds joint U.S. and Israeli citizenship. He was living in Tel Aviv when Iraq lofted Scuds into Israel during the 1991 Gulf war, and everyone wore gas masks during rocket alerts. He told me vividly of his discomfiture over not being able to follow spoken instructions, over being utterly in the dark about rapidly shifting events.

Now I truly understand how he felt.


  1. If you knew sign language you wouldn't be in such a spot.

  2. I think you mean that if EVERYONE ELSE knew sign language he wouldn't be in such a spot.

    We'll be filing that one under 'insensitive, uninformed comments'.

  3. Right, Deidra, I think the signing deaf would be in the same fix, unless there was a hearing interpreter, and there are not a lot of those, especially when you need one.

  4. "If you knew sign language you wouldn't be in such a spot".

    Why do people make such stupid comments? Just what percentage of the population does this person think can sign? Comments like this never cease to amaze me.

    Good rule: Engage brain - then speak.

  5. I just wish they would make see through or clear surgical masks.

    Evern hearing people lipread to some extent, so fo rme this would make a lot of sense :)

    It couldn't be that hard surely?

    I was in this predicament just after my surgery, both times last year and the year before. it was thought I had a hospital bug so everyone gowned up and put a mask on. I had no idea what they were saying. Once they knew I was deaf, they stopped wearing the masks though to their credit, and a few days later it was found I didn't have the bug at all anyway!


  6. I was also living in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War. I was teaching deaf middle school kids, and we had to teach them at school how to put on their gas masks. This was a time when nobody wanted to be alone, and the deaf kids (all signers) always had someone around to tell them what to do. Everyone had TVs in their sealed rooms, and everything was captioned in Hebrew, English, and Russian.

    My biggest fear was that I couldn't really see very well with the mask on. I am REALLY nearsighted, and I couldn't get my glasses under the mask. I eventually popped a lens out of my spare glasses and taped it inside the lens on one side of the mask, so I could sort of see a little. It was really awful, and it was very important for me to not let the kids know I was much more frightened than they were.

    I guess we all have our own personal nightmares.

  7. In my experience, people make stupid comments because they can.

    A hearing person once apologized to me for not being able to speak Braille.

  8. Wow,it never occurred to me to think about that! Thank you for enlightening me. Being in the medical profession I should have thought about this before now. It never even crossed my mind that could be an issue. Granted my use of them is for residents at the Long Term Facility, but I will bring this up to our Infection Control Manager to keep in mind if the Swine Flu (I know that's not PC anymore but don't remember the number/alphabet name for it) becomes an issue up in our little out of the way part of the world. I guess that's one more good reason to live up here. Most people don't travel outside of the county let alone the state or world.

  9. That flu is officially called H1N1. Pronounced "heinie." Beware the spreading heinie!